Outreach and The Heart Of God

First in the Series “A Church Without Walls”
Delivered May 19, 2004 by Rev. John Schmidt.

See also CPC Distinctives – Our Vision – A Church Without Walls.

Theme: We focus on the fact that our outward focus as a church comes from the very heart of God. We look out because God is passionate about people who are still separated from him.

Sermon Text:
Luke 15:11-32

I want to read to you a very familiar passage of scripture to help us continue our worship together. It comes from the Book of Luke, Chapter 15 and I am going to begin at the 11th verse and go through the 32nd verse.

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that county, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was stall a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”

(Solo of My Wayward Son played at this point)

It was about thirty years ago that I first heard that voice promising that there was something more for me when I was a wayward son. It wasn’t the words of the Psalmist, but the words of this Gospel of Luke that told me “Carry on, wayward son, for there will be peace when you are done. Now your life is no longer empty, surely heaven waits for you.”

I heard those words and I heard that promise and God was faithful, there is peace and my life is not empty. But now over thirty years later as a Christian what does that voice that called me, mean to me now? When we look at the gospels and I look at some of these parables in the gospels, particularly this parable of the lost son, it is easy for us to think about our relationship to God as the lost child because all of us began there. At some point or another, whether we were young or whether we were mature adults when we came to that point in faith there was a recognition that we were lost, and an exultation in the love that we experienced from God. But now, later, when we are already inside the love of God and have been growing and living with God for years, what does that voice mean now for us as Christians? We normally look at the parable of the lost son and think about that primary relationship of the young son to the father, but we are going to do things a little differently today because we are going to look specifically at the heart of the father in the parable. Because our world is filled still with wayward sons and daughters, and the question I want us to think about is who is the voice that is still reaching out, calling out to these people?

The easy theological answer is of course God is, but so so often in the world God uses a human voice, so who is the human voice that’s calling out to the wayward people? Don’t cry anymore. Heaven waits for you.

Today we are beginning a six-week sermon series on the vision of our church. A vision to be a church without walls and many of you are going to read this vision that we’ve got sitting here and you are going to say, well okay, that’s interesting. What’s new in it? And that’s okay, because this vision is based upon the DNA of this church. This church has always been concerned about obeying God and reaching out to the world around us. But some of you are going to read it and you are going to notice that some things are a little different, expressed differently, a focus has changed and that’s okay if you notice that too, because being faithful to God in every generation is going to change how we are faithful. The culture is changing underneath us and so we need to change to respond to the needs of that culture. No matter what your emotional experience is when you look at those words, it’s important for you to know right up front as you begin to read this vision that you understand that the center point of the vision is on the focus of reaching the lost and that this focus comes from the very heart of God.

In Luke, Chapter 15 Jesus is answering some questions people are asking. The question they are asking is why does this guy spend time with sinners? He welcomes sinners and he eats with them. People are looking at the ministry of Jesus and saying, wait; you’ve got the balance off. You are not giving enough time to the righteous people. You are reaching out to the sinners. And to answer that, Jesus tells them some stories. When Jesus tells a story, it’s not just to entertain, it’s to teach something and we call these stories parables. And the parable that we are looking at is the third story, all of them essentially making the same point, which is; God is concerned for the lost. When these people come up and say that Jesus is spending time with sinners, if we said that we would think that he’s got no choice. Everybody’s a sinner. Jesus has to spend time with sinners if he is going to spend time with anybody, but they weren’t thinking that way. They knew that people had to be forgiven, but they felt like there were certain people who really weren’t making the kind of effort they should to respond to the law like they were and these people for example, tax collectors who didn’t even value their Jewishness and had turned over their allegiance to Rome and were collecting taxes from their own people. People like that were particularly sinful. Why does Jesus spend time with them?

And so Jesus answers with these stories. This one is the last and the longest of the parables here. And it begins with a picture of a Middle Eastern father and his two sons and it’s the Middle Eastern father that represents God in this parable. Now it’s important for us right now as we are thinking through this parable to remember that the people who are listening to Jesus couldn’t have heard this and think of a 20th or 21st century father. They can’t think of somebody who is going to be carrying a briefcase and going to work. They didn’t know anything about Ozzie and Harriett. They didn’t know anything about Bill Cosby. They couldn’t have thought of Homer Simpson when they thought of a father. What they thought of was a Middle Eastern father who had a certain sort of dignity who is expected to do certain things and handle certain responsibilities, and then Jesus in telling this story starts to point out that in this parable the father acts in unexpected ways. He’s not acting the way a typical father should in their minds and it’s in these ways that he’s different, that we learn something amazing about the love of God. And through this then Jesus explains his ministry. I want to read to you now just Verses 11-13.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father give me my share of the estate.’ So he just divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.”

The parable begins with an incredible breech in a family relationship. What the younger son does here is absolutely unthinkable in a Middle Eastern community. The wealth is in the land and it’s never ever transferred until the death of the parent. Never. And so for this son to come up and say, I want my inheritance now, he’s in effect saying, “I don’t trust you to be a steward of this until I come into my inheritance. I don’t need you now and I wish you were dead.” That’s the emotional impact of coming up and saying, I want my land now. The people who are listening to Jesus certainly at this point expect a rebuke. That is what a Middle Eastern father would do. He should tell him where to go. He should give him some kind of scolding, verbal exchange, maybe even come to blows. Any of those things would be expected, but in the parable the father allows this to happen, and that is the first shock that his listeners get. The first surprise.

Here is a father who is willing to be hurt without lashing back. And here is a father who has the love that allows the freedom to reject his love and to reject his care and protection. And so in the parable the property is divided up and then in verse 13 the son compounds his sin by it says here, “The young son got together all that he had and then set off for the distant country.” Remember the wealth was in the land. Up to this point, all the humiliation is inside the family unit and the people who worked together with the father. There were some people, who knew it, but this is not necessarily an open public problem yet, but when the son has the land, he’s got to turn it now into cash. And how does he do this, if he can’t find a buyer in the family, he has to go out into the town and let everybody know now that he’s got this inheritance and he wants to cash it in. Now the humiliation is public. It’s like when a divorce happens between really famous people and it gets ugly and all the dirty laundry gets put into the newspapers. That’s what happening here when he starts to sell off the property so he can have his inheritance to go and leave.

Let’s go to Verse 14 and 16. It begins with Verse 13, he goes to a distant country, squanders his wealth and then in Verse 14 it begins.

“After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in the whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”

At this point, the son goes in and indulges in a careless lifestyle, squanders all of his resources. He ends up in extreme poverty, near starvation, slopping pigs. Everybody listening to Jesus at that point is going, “Amen, serves him right. There is justice in the world.” Maybe the father wasn’t so silly to let him do this because he is a foolish son and now God himself is punishing him. They liked this part of the story because here is where their worldview connected. This is what foolish people deserve. But Jesus goes on. Beginning in Verse 17.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father”

The son comes to his senses. Well, that’s fairly unexpected, but he’s thinking no matter how humiliating it means for me to go back to my family, it’s got to be better than dying here in a strange country. He doesn’t expect to be accepted back in the family. He goes back with a plan that maybe he can talk his father into, just letting him inside of the broader household, be one of the hired people, maybe be given the skills to become a craftsman and then maybe across time he can save money and somehow make up for this foolish thing that he did. But even that is almost a hopeless plan. And so it’s important for us to think about again, what did the listeners expect at this point in the story? Here’s this foolish son going back in disgrace to his father. What they are expecting is that a Middle Eastern father should be stern, should be proud, should be still angry at what he did and perhaps if the son comes groveling up he could think of some kind of long painful lesson to teach this child and then maybe after that find some kind of work somewhere for him so he can restore a little bit of his life. Maybe. But what they are expecting is that stern, angry father. Jesus again hits his audience with a big surprise. Let’s take a look at Verse 20 to 24.

“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, and threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and he’s alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”

This is startling to the people standing around Jesus for a number of reasons. The first reason that they are startled is the father sees the son while he is still a long way off. That’s not startling to us because when we think about this story we think about a farm in Iowa and it’s got miles of open ground and you look out your kitchen window, and oh, out there on the road he’s coming home. But people at that time lived in their villages, even if they were landowners, most of them did not live in a compound off from the village, but lived in the village, inside of the walls of a village. So for the father to see the son when he’s along a long way off means that he’s stepped out of the house, walked through the town and gone to the cities gates and he’s standing there at the city gates looking. How many times did the father go to those gates? How many times did he go out and look across the ground wondering if today was the day that I have the joy of seeing my son come back home? We don’t know. But we do know that he sees him while he’s still a long way off.

The next surprise comes with the fact that the father has compassion. This is unexpected. If a father is going to be waiting at the gate, it’s to be to keep the kid out of town and to deal with him there and say look before you come into town, you’ve got to get your life straight kid. Just feeling sorry that you’ve wasted everything is not enough. You’ve got to pull your life together. But again the father surprises us by having compassion. Then comes perhaps one of the biggest surprises in the whole story. It says here, he’s still a long way off, the father sees him, is filled with compassion and he ran to his son. Running for an older middle age, Middle Eastern dignified person, running is just not done. You don’t run. There are things in our culture that we dignified people don’t do either. This was that sort of thing. A dignified person is not going to, you know, you’ve got a robe on. You have status in the community. The robe is nicer than maybe some other people’s because you are wealthy and you are supposed to walk with dignity and maybe as you get older maybe with a little bit of a swagger and that’s all understood. To pick up your robes, to show your legs and to run like a child to meet your son, this is humiliating. This is not done. This was so serious an issue culturally that the very earliest Arabic and Syrian translation of the Greek, hundreds of years ago, the very earliest translation changed the word ran, that’s clear in the Greek, to he went. Because they just couldn’t imagine that Jesus would ever tell a story where a hero, where a God figure would do something so humiliating. So the father runs out to the son. Open humiliation. Love. No matter what the cost is to the father and his dignity.

He gets to the son and surprises us again because he wraps his arms around him and kisses him. By the standards of this culture, he should maybe have the privilege of kissing his father’s foot. But here the father embraces him. Another costly demonstration of how the father is rebuilding the relationship right on the spot and it’s important to notice where it comes in the parable. It comes one verse before the son makes his confession. He hasn’t said yet, I am not worthy to be part of the family. He hasn’t said a word yet and his father goes out and puts his arms around him and kisses him. This is what it means. This is what Jesus is talking about when Paul says in different words, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God takes the first step of reconciliation. Immediately the father restores him to the family and to the community. Bring the best robe. Whose robe is the best robe? It’s the father’s. Bring my best robe and come and put it on this child. Bring the ring. What’s the ring mean? The ring most likely is the signet ring that means that this son now has authority to represent the family to do business. Bring his sandals. Give him back his dignity and then now let’s have a party. Now this party is not in the lost son’s honor. This party is in honor of the compassion and sacrifice of the father and the joy that he has now that his son has come back to life.

Now the parable should end here because all the other parables do. The parables end with a party. But Jesus doesn’t end this final parable with a party because there are things going on in the hearts of the people around him that he wants to touch. They are angry at Jesus. And so he goes on and talks about the older son of the family who is also angry. Let me begin at Verse 25 and go to Verse 30.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in a field. When he came near the house, he heard the music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him, what’s going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look all these years I have been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you killed the fattened calf for him!’

The older son is angry. He won’t even go inside. He comes up and he doesn’t even go, which he should do as a son, to go in to the father. Instead he stands outside and the father has to come out to deal with him. In addition, when he talks about his brother he doesn’t say my brother, he says, “Your son did this.” Now you know what it’s like in the family when you start saying your son did this or your daughter. The same dynamics is going on here. And so the father again has to reach out in reconciliation. So the father steps out of the house and goes out and pleads with him. Again, humbling himself in order to reach out to the obedient son who also doesn’t share his father’s heart. Because this son was supposed to be the one who all through this parable should have been a meditator between his younger brother and his father. He should have been speaking for the father and his love this whole time and he should be happy now that there is a moment where reconciliation is possible. But he simply has not taken his role as the oldest son to represent the father. No one who heard this be said, this parable, could have possibly not understood how out of character the father is acting here. This is not the way it should be and that’s the point. Jesus is saying, this is where the love of God is different than what you expect. This is what God is like. God’s love is so wide, so open, so gracious, there is no one beyond saving. He’s willing to reach out to all. God’s love has no walls. God has a sacrificial love. And he expressed it in Jesus Christ and through Jesus he suffered and faced the humiliation in order to reach out to us. This is totally unexpected. This is totally new stuff for the people surrounding Jesus, but it expresses the vision of Jesus’ ministry and for 2,000 years this has explained the vision of the Church of Jesus Christ.

I said earlier when we look at this parable, it’s easy for us to relate to it on the level of being the young child who comes back and is accepted by God’s love. But the big danger for those of us, who have been Christians for a while, is that we become more and more like the older son in the parable. We are ready to remind God what a good deal he has had with us and that we have been faithful for a long time. And we might get worried that it seems like God is looking past us by getting excited about people who are still wasting their lives and ignoring him. God, you haven’t’ taken care of me entirely yet. Why are you worried about them? Why bother with that lot? We might get put out that God is calling us to sacrifice to reach out to some pretty unlovable people. Like the older son, it’s a danger for all of us that we become unwilling to get involved because we are unwilling to share the father’s heart. Our world is filled with wayward sons and daughters and the question is whose voice is calling them home?

The big point of this, whether we relate to the self centeredness of the younger brother or the self righteousness of the older brother, the point of the parable is, we are supposed to share in this kind of love that the father has for wayward people. Remember, Jesus told this to answer the question, why was he hanging around with people who seemed unworthy. Why did he do it? Jesus’ answer is because God loves these people. God is longing, waiting for their return. God has compassion for them, desires to return their dignity, to give them honor, to restore the rights of his household to these people and even throw a party when they return to celebrate his grace and his joy. This is the love that Jesus shared. This is the love that we received when we came to God. This is the love that we live inside of right now as God’s people. And this is the very love that we are called to share with the world around us and that’s why we want to be a church without walls.

Let’s pray. God we do thank you, we thank you for what you’ve done to save us and to draw us to yourself and now as your people we pray that we might rekindle in our hearts your passion for those who are still wasting their lives, so that we might share in your love, share in your heart and be carriers of your grace to the world around us. For we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.